One of Theda Hammel's earliest memories of John Early was his audition for the romantic lead in an Off-Broadway production that she was assistant directing. The show was Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Early performed an earnest number on the acoustic guitar in hopes of being cast as the lovelorn foot soldier Simon Shashava.

"To me, it was the greatest audition ever," Hammel recalls, now a decade later. "But my first exposure to John was to him as a dramatic actor, and it was only a surprise and delight to find out later just how funny he was and is."

The two had been orbiting one another at the Atlantic Acting School for a couple years by that point. "I was very earnestly trying to enter the incredibly lucrative world of New York the-at-er," Early deadpans. It was the late aughts, and he was an Atlantic graduate making ends meet by working the front desk; she was taking a summer intensive and mostly knew him as the sweet guy who greeted her each day.

"He got into the theater school that I really wanted to get into, but didn't. We would've been in the same class," Hammel tell A.frame. "It's a miracle that we didn't, because we would not have gotten along at that time. I was very, very precocious and annoying."

"I think we first met as reverent theater people," Early says for his part, "but then we quickly were able to drop the facade and be cranks together. And we've been very, very close friends ever since."

Early didn't get the lead in the Brecht play, but he was prominently featured in the ensemble. When the comedian began hosting a variety show, Showgasm, he tapped Hammel as his co-host and DJ. When she directed her first short film, 2022's My Trip to Spain, she cast Early to star opposite her. A few years ago, Hammel wrote him a 15-page monologue as a birthday gift with the hope that they could use it as a jumping-off point to shoot something "avant-garde" together. Mostly, though, she just wanted her friend to like his present.

"And then what happened was John drank a lot of coffee, I think, and talked about it excitedly in a general meeting with Neon," recounts the filmmaker. The production company was interested in making the movie with them once Hammel expanded her "weird little short story" into a feature-length screenplay. "Which I had not intended to do. I went, 'Oh, f**k! I guess I have to write a script.' Now I've committed three years of my life to this, which has been a pleasure, actually!"


In Stress Positions, Early stars as Terry Goon, a stressed thirtysomething unraveling while sheltering in place during the summer of 2020. He lives in the Brooklyn brownstone of his sleazy soon-to-be ex-husband and spends his days fussing over his nephew, Bahlul (Qaher Harhash), a 19-year-old Moroccan fashion model with a broken leg. Terry's best friend, Karla (Hammel), has problems of her own, but her most pressing one: She just really wants to meet the model.

"When I look at my life, not much has really happened in it. I transitioned — that was an event — but the things that have happened in my life are very boring. There's not a lot to draw from," says Hammel, who like the character of Karla, is trans. "Suddenly, you're in the middle of a global crisis! And my life didn't change significantly. I'm still going to Sunac, the horrible grocery store, and paying too much, and then going home and being online all the time. But suddenly, that is a really acute crisis rather than just a chronic ambient one, and you go, 'Oh, well. Finally, a subject to write about.'"

"There was something really cathartic about actually portraying the contradictions of that moment," Early adds. "When we were living it, it was all so unintegrated. It was like, we had our public selves with our rapidly-changing Covid protocols and moralizing. And we had our social media, social justice selves, and then we had our feral, insane, descending-into-madness-selves at home, and there was no blending of the two. It was fun to find the comedy in that and not to focus on the more devastating or anxiety-producing parts of that time."

Hammel co-wrote Stress Positions with Faheem Ali in early 2021, when the height of the Covid lockdowns was somewhat in the rearview. The movie, of course, deals with PPE and social distancing, disinfecting groceries and banging pots and pans for essential workers; but it's not about the pandemic as much as it uses the pandemic as a fulcrum point to explore identity politics, internal queer politics, and privilege. Oh, and it's a screwball comedy.

At one point, Early's Terry literally slips on a banana peel.

"The character is a clown, and clowns fall down. They slip on banana peels, and they stumble and they bump their head. That's just what they do," Hammel says. "And it is maybe a serious issue that millennials are all clowns, and Americans are all clowns and can't do anything. But it is clownish. It's comedic."

Early, meanwhile, was born to pratfall. (In a bit of unfortunate timing, he had a herniated disk that required surgery the summer prior to filming.) Terry is, he explains, "this panicked gay host archetype that I, for some reason, am obsessed with doing. And Theda just elevated it. She can detect the deeper critique that's underneath my silliness. I will be clowning, making faces, and she is able to elevate and contextualize what I am doing and tease out the smarter stuff that's latent in there, that I can't express on my own because I'm a fool. That is really what's going on in this movie."

Theda Hammel behind the scenes of 'Stress Positions.'

In addition to writing, directing and starring in Stress Positions, Hammel edited the movie with Erin DeWitt and composed the original score. Wearing so many hats on her first film may have been one way to safeguard her singular creative vision, but as she admits, "The problem that I have is that I'm a good talker but not a good communicator — this is something that I've realized — and sometimes the best way to communicate something is just to do it yourself."

"I don't know what I would tell somebody to score the movie. I know that I would have strong preferences, that I would be really obnoxious about it, and that maybe the best way to spare somebody that was just to do it," continues Hammel, who has a Masters in Music Technology and has released original music under the pseudonym HAMM. "The benefit, though, is that in all of those stages you get to improve the mistakes you've made in the previous stages. So, by directing, I get to improve on the script. By editing, I get to improve on my performance as an actor — which believe me, there is a version of that performance that I edited out that is very bad. And then, even by scoring it, I get to blend everything together and really make more of a final statement of how I want the mood and the tone of that movie to feel. It's very beneficial. I think it's just labor-intensive."

Stress Positions premiered during this year's Sundance Film Festival, ahead of a nationwide theatrical release. "I have been very gratified by the positive responses and thrilled by some of the negative ones, as well. It feels real. I feel real," Hammel muses, though she says gauging the reaction to the movie has been difficult. "This is the biggest exposure that I've ever had with anything that I've ever done." For Early, that was always the point.

"It is just thrilling to share Theda with the world," says the actor. "She has a very devoted following of — these are her words — 'gay filth.' So, she is known, and she's known by gay cinephiles for her takes on Twitter. But I also think she's not known to the larger world, and I'm always trying to get people to see this brilliant friend of mine who's just like a crazy genius. She's a songwriter, she's a gear nerd, she's a Foley artist, she's a director, she's a writer, she's a brilliant actress — which doesn't get talked about enough." Early leans in as if sharing a secret, "I mean, to me, she is Orson Welles."

By John Boone


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